CU Boulder brother-sister grads forge new partnership in space

A brother-sister team of graduates from the University of Colorado are both making contributions to an upcoming SpaceX mission to the International Space Station — one as an artist, the other as a scientist.Doug Kacena, now a Denver-based artist, and...

CU Boulder brother-sister grads forge new partnership in space

A brother-sister team of graduates from the University of Colorado are both making contributions to an upcoming SpaceX mission to the International Space Station — one as an artist, the other as a scientist.

Doug Kacena, now a Denver-based artist, and Melissa Kacena, an associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine, actually have teamed on space research before.

While Doug was a pre-med with a minor in fine art, Melissa was earning her doctorate in aerospace engineering. This resulted in their briefly working toward the same goals at CU's BioServe Space Technologies.

SpaceX CRS-10, currently scheduled to launch Feb. 18, is the 10th in a series of 12 missions awarded by NASA under a commercial resupply services contract. It had been originally set for a November 2016 launch, but that was put on hold after a SpaceX rocket exploded on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The SpaceX launch program resumed with the successful launching of a Falcon 9 rocket Jan. 14 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Melissa Kacena is a co-investigator on the Tissue Regeneration-Bone Defect Study. That experiment calls for what NASA describes as a "pre-flight surgery" to create an "artificial defect" to the femurs of mice, to gain a better understanding of the impact of microgravity on healing and tissue regeneration.

In the long term, according to the NASA overview of that experiment, knowledge gleaned from the experiment "may lead to understanding the biological reasons behind our inability to grow a lost limb at the wound site, despite the fact that the initial onset of this process is the same across all vertebrates, including salamander, and the possibility of achieving this feat in a microgravity environment."

Doug Kacena, 41, voiced excitement over an abstract expressionist placing his art in space — in support of his big sister's science. Doug Kacena created the patch, having run through about a dozen different iterations, at Melissa Kacena's invitation. She had not been too impressed with patches developed for previous missions in NASA's Rodent Research series, which she found, he said, to be a bit "clip-arty."

"It's amazing," Doug Kacena said of being invited to develop the patch, which also comes in a sticker format.

"First of all, I'm just incredibly proud of her, and all the research she has been doing over the years," he said. "To be a primary researcher on a project this big is, I think, a lifelong goal of hers. And to have even a small part, I am incredibly flattered, and I am proud as heck of her."

As the former gallery director of Evergreen Fine Art Gallery — he is about to join two other partners in co-owning and directing a new gallery in Denver — he had experience in creating specific on-demand graphic arts pieces that needed to satisfy several interested parties.

For the SpaceX mission, "There were visual requirements, as far as what boxes we had to check, as far as the imagery they wanted to use," Doug Kacena said. "It had to show imagery related to the flight itself — thus, the Department of Defense was doing a genetic research project; that's why the double helix is there.

"The SpaceX capsule itself is in there. It's limiting; there was a certain (maximum) amount of colors, we had to get it down to seven colors. The very first version, we had very elaborate beautiful starscape scenes, with more detail and structure."

'Polar opposites'

At CU's BioServe Space Technologies, Doug Kacena was among those doing the undergraduate research work supplying data that informed the work of Melissa Kacena's graduate research group connected with zero gravity. That included ground-based research that would be compared with the results of parallel experiments sent aboard space shuttles and the Mir space station.

"We all kind of worked as the minions," Doug Kacena said.

"I needed many 'hands' to help run a bacteria experiment where we needed to take measurements every two hours for several days in a row," said Melissa Kacena, 44. "My brother and a few of his friends were interested in obtaining some research experience through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. It was nice to have the opportunity to work with my brother then."

She added, "He did a great job and never let me down. It is interesting to think that the next time we were able to 'work' together was again related to spaceflight studies — but, as you indicate, from a very different perspective."

Melissa Kacena also noted, "My brother and I have very different skills and interests. We are almost polar opposites. But I believe our differences resulted in a great end product in this mission patch."

More than three years through his CU experience, Doug Kacena switched from a major in molecular cellular developmental biology and minor in fine arts, to majoring in fine arts — art history and painting — and making his science track his minor.

But Melissa Kacena stayed with the science, earning a doctorate at CU in aerospace engineering, before landing at the Indiana University School of Medicine, by way of stops doing research at both the Harvard Medical School and Yale University School of Medicine.

Connections count

Bioserve Director Louis Stodieck recalls Melissa Kacena's time there — and said their connection is ongoing, as BioServe is actually providing a small but important piece of hardware being used on her SpaceX study.

In an email, he said, "It is of course very gratifying to see a former student, who was involved in some of our early microgravity research, develop a successful career as a professor and conduct important research in her own right now as a principal investigator at Indiana University."

Stodieck added that her research "has the potential to improve our understanding of the role of gravity and skeletal loading in bone healing and could help to identify new targets for therapeutics to improve bone healing outcomes here on Earth."

Melissa Kacena explained some potential benefits of her research.

"We are hoping to better understand how bone healing works in spaceflight. We are also testing our novel bone healing agent in spaceflight and comparing it to the current FDA-approved bone healing drug.

"The U.S. Army is supporting this work and they are interested in it for helping our active military personnel that suffer from IED (improvised explosive device) injuries, which, if an amputation can be avoided, would require a large skeletal reconstructive surgery of the injured limb. We believe that spaceflight affords us the opportunity to use a better animal model to test drugs."

She credits her CU connections as being beneficial in cementing her relationship with the Department of Defense.

"I was pleasantly surprised when one of my old bosses, Dr. Louis Stodieck, was on a teleconference and was going to help support some aspects of our spaceflight investigation," Melissa Kacena said.

"It was something I used as a teaching moment for my students, in that you never know whether your paths will cross with people again. So you always want to keep good relationships with people."

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, or

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